In the next weeks, I will contribute a series of articles on cultural flagship projects to this blog.* Since Kenneth Wardrop and other authors have already written about British and Scottish cities reinventing themselves through branding their cultural/creative potential (UNESCO creative cities articles 1, 2, 3), my first article will rather deal with a conceptualization of this topic (Part I). Then, I will focus on a region which does not often play a prominent role with respect to this blog’s range of topics: the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) region. I will discuss the export of cultural flagship projects from Europe into the MENA region (Part II), with particular focus on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt (Part III) which I will study on a field trip in February.
The emergence of cultural flagship projects in many European cities accelerated approximately two decades ago with the rising hype about the European Capital of Culture (and more recently the UNESCO Creative Cities Network). This trend in city planning and marketing has gone hand in hand with research on urban renewal and the rebirth of the inner-city. Charles Landry in Great Britain and Richard Florida in North America were at the forefront of combining a theory on creative cities with the practical implementation of corresponding planning strategies. Even though the academic community has been highly skeptical of this ‘export’ of research findings and the invention of a one-size-fits-all toolkit for urban (re)development, the idea has since then been so powerful and promising for urban decision makers that its success could not be reversed.
On the part of city planners, the idea is that a reinvention of a city’s image and a cutting-edge international global branding campaign is only possible if the city’s cultural potentials are tapped. Besides various other tools, it has been the cultural flagship project that is thought of as the ideal solution to boost those hidden cultural treasuries.
To make a long story short, urban redevelopment programs have often been rife with challenges, and flagship projects have tended to ignite new or sleeping conflicts in the urban playing field. In most cases, the debate circles around the question for whom culture is promoted through new programs. Is the new museum, concert hall, music festival, fashion week, art show, reused industrial site etc. for citizens or the to-be-attracted creative class, for local businesses or the global economy? Beyond the discussion on a flagship’s architecture and design, decision makers have understood that stakeholder questions are much more challenging.
Another challenge is the relation between cultural flagships and their adjacent area. Sometimes, a flagship is supposed to be integrated in the existing urban fabric. In other cases, the flagship is supposed to break up traditional features and function as a UFO-like object from which a new urban development could start.
With regard to cultural flagship projects in Europe, studies have looked into the following examples (among others): the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Oslo’s new opera house, the Museumsquartier in Vienna, the Kunsthaus in Graz, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, NewcastleGateshead, Barcelona, Emscher Park in the Ruhr area, Frankfurt’s Museumsufer, and Copenhagen’s Royal Opera House and Concert Hall. In summary, the following aspects were identified as critical success factors:
- Overarching vision for urban redevelopment
- Embedding of the flagship into a broader comprehensive redevelopment plan
- Well-designed interconnection and interrelation between a cultural flagship and its adjacent area
- Proximity to local economies
- (Long-term) job creation
- Building of alliances between stakeholders through participatory planning and implementation
- Realistic, long-term financial planning
- Investments into the cultural capital that matches investments into the physical infrastructure
- Active intervention against homogenization tendencies
- Openness to unplanned evolutions and unintended uses of (open) space
Several other aspects could be added to this list. What becomes clear is (once again) that cultural flagship projects are incubators for urban redevelopment and an equivalent tapping of the cultural capital goes far beyond the simplicity of the creative city theory and necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the urban fabric as well as place-specific strategies.
* The corresponding research has been conducted by the following members of a study group: Pieterjan Dom, Pia Haus, Lea-Sophie Natter, Renard Teipelke.